FIRST PUBLISHED IN AUGUST 2012. Re-promoted in light of Recent Discussions in the House of Lords.
When an animal has an illness which subjects it to constant suffering, most people would see ending its life as the most humane thing to do. Although it would be unreasonable to liken the suffering of a human to that of an animal, very often, when a person suffers for a long time, the comparison made is that “you wouldn’t treat an animal like that”. This comparison creates one of the most compelling arguments in favour of active euthanasia. Unfortunately, however, the British parliament doesn’t consider this, and recently, Tony Nicklinson became one of many who were denied the rights and respect afforded to animals, and instead had a new right forced upon him: the right to suffer.
In 2005, 58 year old Tony Nicklinson suffered a stroke which left him paralysed with locked-in syndrome: a condition which meant he was a lucid and agile mind, trapped inside an immobile body, able to communicate only through blinking. Earlier this year, hearing that his case would be heard in full at the Crown Court gave Tony and his family hope that he would be allowed to die with dignity and end his “living nightmare”. This hope was taken away on 16th August when the verdict was announced that Tony Nicklinson would not be given the right to die without legal repercussions for those who help him. Since the verdict, Nicklinson, desperate not to live the twenty years doctors have predicted, refused to eat and subsequently contracted pneumonia, which caused his condition to significantly deteriorate until, at 10am on Thursday morning, he passed away.
The courage and strength of Tony Nicklinson throughout his struggle with his illness is unquestionable; however, his death was hardly the dignified relief that he and his family had fought for. It seems to be a terrible failing of the British judicial system that a man who was clearly possesed enough intelligence and mental stability to understand what his decision to want to take his own life meant, had to resort to giving up food and medicine – things which would have made his illness slightly more bearable, and relinquishing what little control he had over his body.
At present, it is legal to – in very severe cases – withdraw treatment or food with the intention of ending a person’s life; there is also an extremely low chance of prosecution for those who take severely disabled people to countries in which assisted suicide is legal, in order to end their life there. However, the law is such that, for anybody like Tony Nicklinson who is so severely disabled that they are unable to take the final steps to ending their life themselves, and therefore needs someone else to act on their behalf, there is no legal means of euthanasia available to them, since this would amount to murder.
Anti-euthanasia campaigners who contested Nicklinson’s case argued that if the law on euthanasia was changed to allow someone to act on a patients behalf in cases of active euthanasia, then it would take away the safeguards in place for those unable to speak for themselves. They believe that there would be a risk that cases of involuntary, active euthanasia would become more commonplace, under the guise of a necessary, pain-ending action. This, however, is unlikely. Any changes to the law would be strictly regulated, and patients requesting that someone should be allowed to end their life for them would have to meet a rigid set of criteria to determine beyond all reasonable doubt that the act would be morally and legally justifiable and that the patient in question is of sound enough mind to request such an action.
For the friends, families and doctors of those with life-limiting and painful disabilities, the current law on assisted suicide creates an extremely difficult choice. They can either follow the law and subject a person to “a life of increasing indignity and misery”, as Nickleson himself described, or they could risk prosecution and help the person suffering to end their life, and their pain with as much dignity as possible. It is clear that the laws regarding this need new clarification, which considers severe, mitigating circumstances such as those of Tony Nicklinson. It should be possible for those who suffer from severe disabilities and wish to end their life to do so on their own terms, without resorting to the desperate actions that Nicklinson took in his final days.